FLANNERY, WILLIAM, Roman Catholic priest, Basilian, teacher, and journalist; b. in Nenagh (Republic of Ireland), probably on 12 Jan. 1829, eldest son of William Flannery and Margaret Carroll; d. 21 Dec. 1901 in Borrisokane (Republic of Ireland).
William Flannery left Ireland in 1845 at the beginning of the Great Famine and went to Annonay, France, where he completed his classical studies under the direction of the Basilian fathers. He was accepted as a novice on 28 Nov. 1851, and taught English to his fellow novices at the Collège Sainte-Barbe. Soon after the reception of tonsure, he was one of four men chosen by the superior general, Father Pierre Tourvieille, to join Father Patrick Moloney in the Canadian missions. Accompanied by Jean-Mathieu Soulerin*, Joseph-B. Malbos, and Charles Vincent*, Flannery departed from France on 4 Aug. 1852 and arrived in Toronto by way of New York on 21 August. They had been invited by Bishop Armand-François-Marie de Charbonnel* to serve the growing number of Irish Catholics in the city and the surrounding missions, and to open a minor seminary for young aspirants to the priesthood. Although not yet a priest, Flannery was well equipped for missionary work in Upper Canada. He was an experienced teacher and, being Irish, would be able to relate easily to many local Catholics.
In September the Basilians established St Mary’s Lesser Seminary. Flannery taught Latin during the day to the 6 youngest of the 21 boys enrolled and studied theology in the evening. He also accompanied Father Soulerin on his Sunday visitations outside the city. At Charbonnel’s bidding, the seminary was merged with St Michael’s College, an institution run by the Brothers of the Christian Schools at the bishop’s palace. The Basilians took charge of the college and were immediately successful in attracting a large number of students to their cramped quarters inside the palace. Within a few years they were obliged to look for a site on which to erect their own building. In 1856 the new institution opened its doors at Clover Hill, the estate of John Elmsley* on the northern fringe of Toronto. Flannery, one of the college’s founders, continued as a Latin instructor and eventually rose to the distinction of professor of belles-lettres. He was a natural teacher. He knew his subject thoroughly and responded well to the challenge of shaping the first generation of Toronto Catholics to receive a higher education.
Flannery was ordained a priest on 22 May 1853. In addition to his teaching position, he was given the largely Irish mission at Weston (Toronto), where he was expected to oversee the construction of a church (it was ready for worship on 17 Sept. 1854) and to say mass at least on alternate Sundays. An affable man and a persuasive preacher, he faithfully attended to the spiritual needs of Weston’s Catholics for five years and also conducted services at other missions in the vast diocese of Toronto, usually in aid of the college. When he announced in July 1857 his intention to return to Ireland, the Catholics of Weston expressed their gratitude by giving him a purse of $190, nearly quadruple his annual stipend.
Resignation from Weston signalled Flannery’s formal withdrawal from the Basilians. He left for two reasons. First, he strongly objected to the taking of vows, which had not been required until the general chapter of 1852. Their introduction, he felt, violated the spirit of the constitutions under which he had entered the noviciate. Secondly, his repeated refusal to take vows – instead of the traditional four promises – put him in an awkward situation in relation to his confrères who chose to submit to them. Unsure of his status in the community, and finding it increasingly difficult to live at the college, in 1857 he chose to leave.
Father Flannery suffered from divided loyalties. On the one hand, he felt indebted to the Basilians for nurturing his vocation. Indeed, he was to remain close friends with them for the rest of his days. On the other hand, according to Father John Francis Boland, “it was in the realm of parochial work that he was best suited.” He was never able to reconcile the freedom he experienced at Weston with the conformity of community life at the college. Faced with a personal crisis he was, as Soulerin noted, “too prone to run.”
What began as a summer holiday in his native Ireland turned into a stay of more than three years. Having turned a deaf ear to Soulerin’s pleas not to abandon Toronto, Flannery forfeited the confidence and patronage of Bishop Charbonnel. Even though Flannery sincerely wished to be adopted by the diocese of Toronto, the bishop resisted his every blandishment. Stung by Charbonnel’s rejection, he turned to his cousin Michael Flannery, the new bishop of Killaloe, Ireland, who made him parish priest of Toomyvara. In no time he was a favourite of his parishioners and of the press, but he harboured “a longing still for the wilds of America.” His wish was fulfilled in November 1860 when he was sent to collect funds in North America for the restoration of Nenagh Castle, a medieval round tower his bishop hoped to incorporate into a new cathedral. Travelling to New York, Montreal, and Toronto, and visiting countless Irish settlements in between, Father Flannery raised the impressive sum of £600. After the money had been remitted to Ireland, Flannery settled down once more in Toronto. The new bishop, John Joseph Lynch*, a fellow Irishman, was agreeable to his request for the mission at Streetsville (Mississauga). The appointment took effect no later than October 1863. He flourished at Streetsville, remaining there until 1867. Supported by money he had collected on a lecture tour of the United States in 1866, he built a substantial presbytery in nearby Dixie (Mississauga). He was drawing up plans for St Patrick’s Church in Dixie when an unfortunate dispute arose between Lynch and himself over the canonical validity of the mass wine used in the diocese. Justin DeCourtenay, the manufacturer and one of Flannery’s parishioners, vehemently protested Lynch’s judgement that his product was impure and thus unsuitable for sacramental purposes. Flannery took DeCourtenay’s side and, according to Father Denis O’Connor* in November 1867, “spoke his mind freely” during the quarrel. His indiscretion cost him the support of yet another bishop, and he was obliged to leave Streetsville. A brief interlude in St Francis de Sales parish, in Pickering, was followed by yet another flight home to Ireland.
Bishop John Walsh* of Sandwich (Windsor), Ont., intervened on Flannery’s behalf. He invited the priest to become his personal secretary, a position he would hold until 1869. During his time in London (the episcopal see from 1868), Flannery canvassed every parish and mission in the diocese for money to liquidate the huge debt left by Bishop Pierre-Adolphe Pinsoneault*, Walsh’s predecessor. In less than a year the entire amount of $30,000 had been paid off. It is difficult to estimate how much Flannery himself collected, but the extraordinary pace at which the debt was eliminated must have been due largely to his performance from the pulpit. Perfectly bilingual, he successfully appealed to the generous spirit of both English- and French-speaking Catholics in the area.
After a year as temporary administrator of the mission in Amherstburg, Flannery was transferred to Holy Angels parish in St Thomas in September 1870. The peripatetic priest had finally found a home. The 28 years he spent there were the most stable and productive of his life. He replaced the 1830 frame church with a larger one built of brick at a cost of $14,000. The new church, located on Talbot Street in the heart of the town, was opened on 10 Nov. 1872. A Catholic school was set up in the old building for some years. When a new, brick structure was completed in 1879, a section was reserved as a convent for the Sisters of St Joseph [see Catherine Anne Campbell*], who were then placed in charge of the school’s daily operations. Flannery himself collected $1,000 for the down payment on the school by knocking on every door in town, regardless of the occupant’s religion.
Flannery strengthened the spiritual bonds of Catholicism in St Thomas by nurturing the church’s prosperity and security. Although Catholics composed only a fraction of the town’s total population, he was able to coax out of them loyalty and support enough to make Catholicism a force to be feared and respected. His parishioners’ fondness for Flannery was publicly manifested in the lavish celebrations staged in 1878 to mark the 25th anniversary of his ordination, and in 1895 for the 25th anniversary of his service as their parish priest. So supportive were his parishioners that they agreed in the 1880s to pay him a salary of $1,000 per annum.
During his incumbency at St Thomas, Flannery was active as well in Catholic journalism. For many years he was the associate editor of the Catholic Record (London), and his editorials and leading articles were noted by his contemporaries for their considerable learning and disarming wit. He was also a contributor to the Catholic Register in Toronto. However, in accordance with the prevailing custom, his work for both newspapers appeared anonymously. It remains practically impossible to trace what originated from his pen. The one identifiable piece is Defence of the Jesuits, a compilation of his letters on the Jesuits’ estates question which was published in London as a pamphlet around 1889. The publication arose out of a war of words he conducted on the pages of St Thomas and London newspapers, chiefly with the Reverend Benjamin Fish Austin*, principal of the Methodist Alma Ladies’ College and the author of an inflammatory anti-Jesuit broadside. Never one to offend his many Protestant friends, Flannery none the less felt duty-bound to intervene. His uncompromising replies to each of Austin’s major charges against the Jesuits succeeded in destroying the minister’s every objection. The Defence solidified Flannery’s reputation as a first-rate writer with an encyclopaedic knowledge of church history and theology. He showed himself to be a steadfast Catholic apologist guided from first to last by the weight of evidence and the force of reason. For his pains, Flannery was awarded an honorary dd by Georgetown College in Washington, D.C., in 1892.
In September 1898 Flannery was promoted dean of Windsor and was made parish priest of St Alphonsus Church in the centre of the city. Sadly, his remaining years were consumed by a dispute with a small number of his parishioners, including the Pacaud family, publishers of Le Progrès, over the way he spoke French from the pulpit. His life was made miserable by their complaints. In the end he had to defend himself against his own curate, Father Joseph-Napoléon Ferland, who had written a lengthy memoir to the apostolic delegate charging that the historical rights of French Catholics at St Alphonsus were being ignored by their Irish pastor. In a 13-page reply, Flannery patiently corrected Ferland’s many factual errors.
Tired and embittered, and no doubt worn down by advancing age, Flannery did not object to his removal, by mid January 1901, to the country parish of St Columban’s. He had been there only a few months before he was stricken with an attack of paralysis. Fearing the end was at hand, he decided to make one last visit to Ireland. He had not been home since 1896, when he had been a delegate to the Irish Race Convention. While visiting his sister in Borrisokane, a few miles from his birthplace, he suffered a second stroke and died.
Father Flannery had been a Tory in Canadian politics and a fervent Home Ruler in Irish matters. Although he had not persevered as a Basilian, once given the proper milieu in which to thrive he had become a model parish priest, an accomplished and prolific Catholic journalist, and a well-respected public figure. An intelligent and educated man, he might have achieved greater fame if, as Henry James Morgan* noted in 1898, he had been “ambitious enough to covet the honours of authorship.”
[A genealogy of the subject’s family was prepared for the author by Nancy Murphy of the Nenagh District Heritage Centre (Nenagh, Republic of Ire.) from indexed transcripts of baptismal and marriage registers in the possession of the Nenagh District Heritage Soc. m.p.]
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